As we enter a new year, the staff at EveryoneOn has taken some time to reflect on exactly what brought us to work on the issue of the digital divide and what continues to drive us in our work. This post is by Zach Leverenz, our chief executive officer. Find posts from other staff members here.
I grew up in Accident, Maryland, a beautiful rural town of around 325 people in the Appalachian mountains near West Virginia. And yes, it is really named Accident, and yes, someone from Accident is really called an Accidental. So I’ve always had that going for me. My commitment to equity and opportunity for all, which is at the heart of EveryoneOn’s digital inclusion mission, is born from my own observations and personal experiences with the kind of generational cycles of poverty and systemic inequalities that still stunt social outcomes for millions of Americans, and ultimately threaten the vibrancy and competitiveness of our nation.
Even as a young child, I remember feeling a deep sense of injustice in how so many opportunities seemed reserved for kids who lived in other ZIP codes. My parents say that they first realized how formative our bout with poverty was for me when, at age four or five, I overheard them having a hushed conversation one evening about our financial struggles; when they found me eavesdropping behind the kitchen counter, I apparently told them, “I’m sorry, but I hate money.”
For much of my childhood, I blamed “money” itself, or the lack of it, for the stress my parents were under to make ends meet. As a young adult, I came to understand that there were larger, more complex issues surrounding poverty in America—public systems of education, finance, health, and justice designed to maintain the status quo for society’s “haves” and “have-nots."
As it is for millions of low-income kids today, this realization was very difficult for me to reconcile with the principals of the great American meritocracy on which we are raised by society. The idea that your own ability, aptitude, and work ethic are the true indicators of your success is deeply branded into our collective identity, and is at the core of our most venerated national treasure—the American Dream.
But for a growing number of hard working families, the American Dream has become just that—a dream. The scale of the problem has been documented in a growing body of research, including recent studies released by the Federal Reserve and the University of California-Berkeley, which show that the surging levels of wealth inequality in the United States is now higher than at any other period since the Great Depression.
The trajectory for my own family changed in 1987 when both my parents landed full-time jobs with the postal service (after years as part-time mail carriers without benefits), and committed themselves to enabling my sister and I to attend college—a very big deal in a town where less than seven percent of residents have a college degree. Our jump up into the middle class, and the access it enabled to financial, healthcare, and educational systems, felt truly transformative to my parents. In fact, for years afterward, my father led my sister and I in reciting a small family prayer before each dinner: “Thank you for delivering us from the land of poverty into the land of plenty. Amen.”
We’ve always understood our upward mobility had very little to do with some kind of differentiated ability, aptitude, or work ethic. We worked hard, and still do, but no harder than our neighbors; for decades we were still only one bad break—one economic downturn, one serious health issue—away from being back outside the system.
After college, my acute awareness of these opportunity gaps and their invisible gatekeepers drove me to find solutions that would remove luck from the mobility equation and empower individuals with the tools needed to be successful regardless of race, age, or socioeconomic status. I was eventually drawn to technology and its unique power to democratize opportunity for marginalized populations around the world. In my first stab at catalyzing social change through technology, I served as the CEO of Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET), a MIT-based tech and social justice organization. Both the work and the unique timing of my post in the Middle East left a lasting impression on me. In 2011, I had a first-hand view of the revolution in Tahrir Square, and how the access to ubiquitous technologies could mobilize and unify populations that had historically been silenced.
When I returned to the States, I wanted to test how technology could level the field in our domestic context where, according to Census data, as many as 65 million people, disproportionately low-income and minorities, are still unable to access—or afford access—to home Internet. Back home, only 35 percent of my county’s residents have access to wired broadband; the other 65 percent can’t buy it even if they could afford it. This lack of broadband infrastructure is an issue that still impacts around 30 percent of rural Americans according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but that data also underscores the fact that for over 37 million unconnected Americans living in more urban areas today, the Internet cables are already buried and running right past their front doors. If they were able to afford the subscription plans, it would take just the flip of a switch to light up these households and connect each resident to the Internet.
We designed EveryoneOn to eliminate the digital divide by making affordable Internet, computers, and training available to all unconnected Americans. While there are long-term public and private reforms that can help break down institutional barriers and roll back our growing social stratification, the Internet is a “right now” solution. Affordable access to technology can remove the barriers to knowledge that are born of circumstance, and expose everyone to the opportunities to achieve, thrive, and grow. We are currently conducting a national evaluation on our first two years of outcomes, but the positive impact affordable access is making on education and employment for the families we serve already speaks for itself.
The bottom line? We can and must do better. But the bipartisan beauty in this imperative is that when we do better to provide affordable Internet to every American, we will all do better.
Beyond the tremendous savings and efficiencies that would be realized (which some estimate cost the nation $32 billion annually), one study funded by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center (NARDeP) found that broadband adoption was tied to the economic growth of rural communities in the United States. The study finds that at somewhere around 60 percent community broadband adoption, rural counties begin to experience a correlation in higher income growth and lower unemployment rates. But perhaps the most important and lasting benefit of a connected America—one that is truly representative of all its citizens—is in the impact millions of new users will bring to the richness and diversity of our digital content. At the Consumer Electronics Show last year, I met dozens of tech founders, mostly White males, who were all laser-focused on attracting large volumes of users to their mobile and web products. Imagine what a new market of 65 million users would mean to their success and, more importantly, to the new Black- and Latino-founded startups that would emerge to serve the new demand for culturally and language-appropriate content.
Today, Accident, MD remains one of the communities with below 40 percent broadband adoption, which the same NARDeP researchers found is tied to lower economic growth and fewer jobs. That is the harsh reality for now, but the future looks brighter. All across the country we are beginning to experience an unprecedented groundswell of public and private will to end the digital divide and a recognition that the future competitiveness of the nation depends on it.
My parents were able to purchase a DSL subscription a few years ago, and though the speeds are excruciating, I’ve been helping my dad learn how to use the Internet. He’s got a ways to go toward digital literacy—over the holidays he asked me to look something up on the “Google-machine”—but as he settles into retirement, the access has allowed him to keep in touch with his five siblings, view and respond to the videos of his granddaughters, and stream Telemann, his favorite classical composer, nonstop on Spotify.
The adoption problem is 100 percent solvable. If we build it and if we make it affordable, poor Americans will come online—and we will all be better for it. There are those who continue to assert that "relevance" is the primary issue here, that when it comes to Internet at home, poor folks "just don"t want it." But we must stop propagating this damaging narrative. It is both untrue for the majority of unconnected population (see below) and adds insult to injury by redirecting responsibility for exclusive systems back onto the very folks they serve to marginalize.
When it comes to low-income job seekers, veterans, the disabled, students and parents (basically everyone but the oldest segments of the senior population), our unconnected Americans know very well that they need the Internet. They need it, they want it, and they simply can"t afford it. If you don"t have the time to parse the data on this, just ask the millions of parents like Christina Morua, a mother of three in Miami-Dade whose struggle with the divide was recently featured by the Miami Herald and in this TV spot.
It is an exciting time to be doing this work, and I feel privileged to lead EveryoneOn in doing all we can to be an important part of the solution. Whether your incentive is personal like mine, or driven by the macroeconomic benefit, or both, we all have an interest in getting all of America connected—now. I hope you will join us.